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The Educational Value of Gardening
Teacher Education

Sue Johnson, Senior Education Officer RHS Gardens - Wisley

Home | Contents | The Educational Value of Gardening | Gender | Size & Location of School | Gardening as Problem Solving

If I start by declaring that I was a teacher for twenty years, what follows will be given some credence even if your experience may be different from mine.

When I went to the RHS just over three years ago there was very little being done in the curricular education field - with only a few school visits and no teacher education at all.

I have tried to build up a series of In Service Days for teachers because I thought that teachers should share some of the wonderful resources available just outside the classroom door, if only they knew what to do with them.

This may sound very patronising but teacher training is very prescriptive and most students have a very limited background - not only in science but in many other aspects of the curriculum. Passing on experience - not only mine but that of others on these courses means that everyone gains.

The problem arises when you say to yourself - am I really doing the right thing - am I just swept away with the wonderful gardens and library full of resources and think everyone is as interested as I am.

So you start asking questions - I ask them on booking forms, evaluation forms, I accost student gardeners, I make children fill in questionnaires on trails so that they get a prize - I will do anything to get a better picture of what is going on in schools, with teachers, in career development and so on.

And then I saw an advertisement for degrees by research at Reading University and decided that all this information I was collecting was a starting point for a thesis on the present situation.

It was when I started my literature review that I found how little had actually been written on school gardening recently and all the books I found were very detailed and erudite works from the end of the last century up to about 1912. Follow that -what a responsibility!

I will only give you a brief outline of what I have found and I will not be going into the definition of ‘The Garden’ but - seeing as you are another source of information - before you go could you fill in the form provided with your definition of a garden and gardening.

So the research questions are a starting point for discovering teacher’s perceptions of gardening. More than that, I have then looked into the philosophy of teaching which I must have been taught long ago but have forgotten it and my version of teaching must fit in somewhere but where it sits is difficult to say because one never has time to reflect on the philosophy when there is so much practical teaching to get on with.

How children learn is another one of these imponderables that one seems to get by without spending too much time contemplating when what you need is a piece of work to assess or sufficient knowledge imparted for them to pass examinations. Those not in the centre of league tables and inspections have time to pontificate - all a teacher knows is what seems to work, what children enjoy, what brings out the best work from both low and high achiever.

It never crosses ones mind to think of why you are teaching one thing and not another. If you are given a curriculum which is proscriptive there seems to be no alternatives. This is the one area that I am trying to influence because children develop values from an early age - what values is a whole can of worms on its own.

Teachers who do gardening already appreciate its value - it is a relaxation, in the fresh air. It also gives time to exercise the mind in terms of design, problem solving, planning, and it requires both knowledge and experience.

It is this knowledge and experience which can be built upon because for many teachers, science lessons are difficult. They may have gone to teacher training college with arts A levels and have only a GCSE in science at best. Living processes are part of their gardening and if they include human nutrition and the exercise of muscles they get by gardening, much of their work is done for them. It is just capitalising on the known and a science about which one feels confident. Putting the resources in to back up knowledge is our task.

The problems most teachers have is in convincing others that they are doing school work when gardening.

They need convincing in other ways too.

Many only think of school gardening as it was at the turn of the century when mass education began. Reading, writing and arithmetic sufficed and in the time left over the girls did needlework and the boys gardening.

The image which we will come to later is a product of the this time. There is a gender division and a class division.

The emphasis was also on the values gardening might teach so that the masses were kept in their place. It was also prudent to give lessons in growing food because the wages of labourers was so low and gardening could help to eke out the meagre pay.

This slide is taken from a set of information I give to teachers about the Victorians - they write asking about Victorian parks and gardens and get sent things like this and the previous photograph - with which the children may empathise. Details of train journeys to see flowers in bloom because there was no colour printing in seed catalogues or on seed packets are photocopied to give them a link with the great transport revolution. Special equipment like metal wall tags for stretching fruit training wires and terracotta rhubarb forcing pots links in the great industrial serge in iron and steel and pottery. There is a sheet of situations vacant with wages and the experience and qualities employers were looking for.

Opening minds and giving different perspectives is the aim.

However poor their science, most teachers will have to do ‘the bean in the jar’. We do this on the In service days at Wisley - we give teachers a soaked bean and ask them to dry it, squeeze gently and see what happens - water comes out - wow - this is a revelation to some. They complete a dissection and taken out the minute plant inside. We remind them of the wonder and not the hackneyed.

There is a question over the jar - what is the difference between what every school child sees in class and what actually goes on under the ground? Is this question asked? Do teachers take experiments beyond changing parameters? Do they go into the child's experiences of beans? Do they know the varieties which go into packet of mixed dried beans? Can they use beans for classification exercises instead of coloured plastic bricks? You can go from the bean in the jar to food miles and world pollution - if you are sufficiently interested and have the time to do the preparation. If teachers haven't the time, then perhaps we could do some of it for them.

Obviously some schools are doing gardening in their school grounds - this slide shows a nursery school in a deprived area within 250 metres of the M3. The staff are all committed to gardening and there is two hours time-tabled every Friday when the children work in the garden. For the remainder of the week they spend as much time as they can out of doors looking for art materials, observing changes in plants, pond dipping, using their senses and so on.

Other schools have made maths paths or gardens, orchards, quiet areas, shaded places and so on.

They see gardening as a way of improving the school environment but, as with this school, the ripples spread out into the local community with parents taking more care of their gardens because their children want a patch or want to grow something they tried at school. Pester power working in a constructive way.

Some schools are fortunate in having large grounds but there is still potential in planting containers around the school entrance, and digging up asphalt playgrounds to introduce plants which are not only attractive but which can be used in lessons.

The caption mentions the trained horticulturist and the one part of my research I am not spending too much time on is ‘What is a garden’. One school I know of said that they were pleased when ‘the real gardeners’ left the staff because they could then let weeds grow - for use in classification, and not have to think about summer bedding plants ever again.

Looking at what is already available is the first step and once everyone is convinced of the value of improving the planting it is time to thinking about planting for specific lessons. Topic Trails, orienteering using plants as markers, treasure and scavenger hunts are enjoyed by everyone ( the parents often enjoy the Wisley trails as much as the children).

Many schools now have an environmental area and think that means they just leave things to nature. Grounds maintenance is expensive when the gang mower can’t cut everything. Before embarking on environmental projects schools have to consider budgets and links with environmental organisations. From the group of teachers who have been on ‘In Service Days’ at Wisley, it is obvious that there is no such preparation and the pond or grass bank becomes overgrown and useless as a teaching aid.

Only three of the schools represented at ‘In Service Days’ had an environmental policy -so much for the rhetoric - there is no point in environmental organisations writing policy documents and agreeing the best way forward amongst themselves and government agencies when the teacher at the sharp end has no knowledge of the environment or how to teach its conservation.

Attacking environmental problems via something people can do, like gardening, is more constructive than emphasising the plight of rain forests. I have still to convince my neighbours that my front lawn has a rich biodiversity and is not unkempt.

This is one of the aspects of inservice days at Wisley, we are trying

We hope to inspire them enough to go out and start the process of change - where to start, how to plan, who might help etc.

To meet and discuss with others in similar situations - this is perhaps the most important part -not networking but just to break down the feeling of isolation - the lone voice in the staff room - to convince them that there others doing the same thing. Not to give up.

So what makes a teacher want to use gardening in school?

If you are enthusiastic about something - it is catching, you can fire people with your enthusiasm and children are drawn in because they are open to all experiences - nothing is uninteresting if there is someone with a real passion to show you the things which fascinate them.

If more than 70% have been to Wisley you can bet your life they are keen! There is also research to back the premise that it is the best teachers who look to further their expertise. That is what we needs - the good teachers who are keen gardeners.

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Gender is an issue in gardening Although men do come on these courses, there are proportionately fewer men in teaching in the first place and so I expect few men. There are more women teaching at primary level and my research into the backgrounds of this sample has shown that they are less likely to have A level science. The fact that biology has been seen as a soft science and more ‘girly’ it is likely that what interest they have in science is likely to be in the biological areas rather than physical science. Building on their strength in science so that observation and classification are taught through botany and taxonomy, experimental evidence and repetition are available in living crops with physics encountered in forces, levers, friction and electricity in the garden and chemistry in soils.

The fact that there are so many women interested in gardening may also have something to do with nurturing and patience but I would not want to labour either point in mixed company.

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Size and Location of School

Most of the teachers on ‘In Service’ courses came form schools with under 400 children.

The size of the school does influence the area of grounds available but it also depends on the location of the school. Rural schools tend to be smaller and, although they may have the room they have smaller budgets and fewer staff and parents to set up gardens.

Whatever the size or location, vandalism is a problem for all at some point. One of the reasons why schools want to instil in children some appreciation of the hard work which goes into gardening. Some schools have said that their vandalism has decreased when the school environment improved.

Most participants had come to get ideas for activities and, had I had a larger luggage allowance I could have brought with me the mass of examples we set out for them. We do some hands-on work because I do and I understand is very important for teachers - mainly because they need to have done an experiment so that their expectations of the children when they teach it are realistic. It also helps with timing, resource provision, and knowing the pitfalls.

We might see gardening in every subject but at the moment most teachers use it mainly in the biological and environmental aspects of science. To a lesser extent in geography and as a nice change for art classes in the summer. For many schools the ‘environmental area’ is behind a fence for health and safety reasons and so the spirit of individual observation and interest outside lessons is lost.

The choice of 20 items was taken from a longer list I made at one of the schools I have had contact with which is very keen on gardening. Set against this best practice very few schools have started on improving the school environment.

Planning is crucial and the whole school needs to be involved not just one teacher and the caretaker.

I have heard horror stories of ground maintenance crews mowing daffodil banks before the daffodils have flowered and one instance of trees being uprooted the day after they were planted because the contractor though he was the only one who should be planting trees.

Worst of all is a neglected environment which results from the one interested teacher leaving a school and no one taking over the gardening. If gardening is going to improve attitudes and instil values, such a situation has an equal and opposite effect.

There are many teachers and parents who think that they cannot use what is already there - if they haven’t used the grounds there can’t be anything worth using - its often the definition of ‘garden’ which gets in the way.

Following planning comes the manpower. Governors, Parents, local horticulturists, local business and the children can all get involved.

A seed knows not its planter - you can be any age, and ability - a seed will still grow if it is given the right conditions. All children can do gardening.

Most of those represented on ‘In Service Days’ did not have a whole school policy but one class ( that of the interested teacher) or a Gardening Club which met once a week outside official school hours or at lunch time.

Because the teaching value of the garden has not been realised, it is relegated to an activity for spare moments and often on an ad hoc time scale depending on the enthusiasm of the children as much as the teachers and helpers.

Gardening as it is practised in schools at the present probably represents the essence of teaching. The children involved are motivated the groups are usually small. The helpers give individual attention. The children can put forward ideas which are considered and if there is a good set up, have some influence on the direction projects take - even if it is only the colour scheme for annuals, they have had some input - where is there room for such individualism in a national curriculum.

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Gardening as Problem Solving

There are many instances of technology coming before the scientific advance and with gardening you have the interest in the plant as a forerunner of the scientific explanation of pollination, leaf structure, cloning etc.

Problem solving activities have potential in that seasons vary, crops may be needed for Harvest Festival or a spectacular show for an open day. What do you do to attract butterflies or deter vandals - these are real life problems and children can take their part in putting forward ideas.

This is also one of those outdoor pursuits that can be done by an individual - without finding another 21 people and a pitch and on wet days there is plenty to do with pricking out, potting up or just planning for another year.

Gardening clubs are a start but it would be more beneficial if there was more encouragement of gardening for a number of reasons:

A recent New Scientist had an article about dirt and how we need to be exposed to it so that our immune systems work well. What better way to introduce children to dirt than when they are growing plants in it!

Outdoor education is not just PE and games. Children are less fit than in the past because they are more sedentary -they play with computers and watch TV more than in past generations - their parents are afraid to let them play outside and for the same reasons are keen to take them to school by car. Gardening allows some exercise outside, but within the perimeter of the home and it does not need a pitch and 21 other individuals to make it interesting. Some would prefer to do gardening instead of games in school.

Children are given little information about careers in horticulture and are often dissuaded from doing it because they are too bright. The true picture is far from the truth - as we all know.

If parents are more keen for children to do academic studies than gardening, they will not only tell their children so but the school too. There is great pressure to get results to be successful but very little is said about the value of what is being taught.

Gardening is, seen as something girls do and unless there are male role models, boys in particular will not take gardening up as a hobby or subject.

Which leads on to the media image of gardening which ranges from the old heavy booted horny handed son of the soil (probably with a rural accent) to the middle aged jolly or eccentric character - there are very few young people except as pot fillers and onlookers.

Another researcher has told me that the media image has a significant influence on children when it comes to careers and it is not just the factual programmes but the fictional ones as well - so the old jobbing gardener in a soap or even an advert can make all the difference.

Students I have interviewed expressed dismay at the limited information there is about horticulture in school libraries and careers offices I am trying to create links with local careers officers and have organised a conference for careers in London for June next year and hope to get about 200 careers teachers together to give them the information they lack. With so many alternatives, children will be looking to their future and trying to predict what qualifications they need to get the best jobs - defining the best jobs is our challenge.

So what do teachers need? They need more than just resources although better resources and accurate ones at that would make a good start. There are too many people who think they know what constitutes good gardening and how to teach it. I have a constant stream of would be children’s gardening writers sending in manuscripts which are deplorable in their content, their English and are either way off beam for teaching or so hackneyed as to be laughable.

If we want teachers to know more, we have to offer them in service training and advice. We also have to take on teachers with experience of horticulture - not horticultural lecturers or practitioners, to teach them because they need to speak the same language and the current version of this language.

Once there was a real difference between a teacher and a demonstrator the demonstrator would say this is fun, don’t worry. A teacher would say this is work and there will be questions at the end. What we have to do is help teachers bring the fun element into teaching without losing the content. What we have to contend with is the pressure to measure, assess and quantify everything that children do and the lack of money to send teachers on ‘In Service Days’ to inform their teaching.

I started by saying that we need to think about the values we pass on to children and it is only in a social and cultural framework that we can ask what values - we here know the the value of gardening, but we can only influence large numbers of children and their values, now and in the future, through teachers.

We need them as much as they need us...

For further information please contact

Sue Johnson



RHS Garden Wisley



GU23 6QB


Telephone: +44 1483 22 42 34

Fax: +44 1483 21 23 82

e-mail suej@rhs.org.uk


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Copyright 1999 NBI